Reading Like a Writer: authors and their beloved books

By Brianna Goldberg

Well, I’m pretty sure that was a first: a poem composed especially for an IFOA discussion. “On my tombstone you can write ‘Susan Swan the writer may be dead, but Susan Swan the reader read and read and read’” was presented at Sunday afternoon’s roundtable, Reading Like a Writer, where Canadian novelist Susan Swan (the writer and reader, both very much alive) noted in verse so many of the literary influences who have shaped her writing career.

From Canterbury Tales to the Secret Garden and Simone de Beauvoir, Swan’s loving and artfully rendered list of favourites betrayed just how fervently authors love to openly feed off the literary fruits of those who have gone before them—and the ones that go alongside them, even now.

The mission of the round table, led by novelist and Humber School for Writers director Antanas Sileika, was to reveal how authors read “as professionals.” But, truthfully, much of the discussion was dedicated to reveling in shared appreciation of books the roundtable writers just really, really love. Alongside Sileika and Swan, whose most recent novel is The Western Light, was James Clarke, a poet and memoirist whose latest work reflecting on his childhood is called The Kid from Simcoe Street; novelist Christine Pountney, whose most recent book is Sweet Jesus, the story of a group of siblings who reunite a week before the 2012 US election (weirdly coinciding with the real-life date of the IFOA event); and Kyo Maclear, a novelist, visual artist and children’s book writer, whose latest work, Stray Love, tells the story of an “ethnically ambiguous” character raised by a surrogate father in London and Vietnam in the 1960s.

As Sileika provided simple prompts—favourite stories as a child, for example—the authors jumped at each chance to speak about the virtues of their most beloved books. Maclear lit up at the chance to explain her love of Richard Scarey’s Busytown, Pountney blushed at her own adoration for a series of animal-based children’s books about a wandering hedgehog, Clarke bloomed into a grin while describing The Great Gatsby and, of course, there was Susan Swan and all the homages in her charming poem. Certain names did pop up again and again as having played a role in the roundtablers’ literary development: Raymond Carver, Marguerite Duras, F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Russians.’

But when Sileika asked the authors, who had spent so much time discussing works with which they are besotted, instead about whose works they rather loathe—all the fun and frolic of the earlier conversation dropped away. It was kind of sweet to watch them all cringe and bite their tongues, not wanting to speak ill of anyone else in the profession. However, Swan did admit she can’t stand writing that’s unabashedly clichéd, noting 50 Shades of Grey as an example, while Clarke offered a literary product that’s universally hated: bbq instructions.

Find out more about Goldberg on her website, or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg.

The Great Firewall: censorship in China

By Vikki VanSickle

“Now we have 90 per cent freedom, what more do you want?”

– Chan Koonchung

The audience members at Chan Koonchung’s reading and interview on Sunday were humbled in the presence of not only a renowned writer but a brave political dissident. But Koonchung does not consider himself a dissident; As he said with a touch of a humour, it is the censors and high officials that decide who is a dissident. Thought his work has been censored, he has been able to live relatively free from persecution in Beijing.

Chan Koonchung at IFOA 2012 ©

Koonchung read from The Fat Years, his internationally acclaimed novel which has been banned in China. Written in 2009, it was set in what was then the not-too distant future, 2013. Koonchung wanted to talk about the present but set in slightly in the future so he could create a series of fictional but plausible events that illustrated his point. In the book, a group of intellectuals in Beijing discover an entire month has been erased from Chinese history.

Koonchung was adamant that his novel was fiction, but claimed that there are true stories in China that are even more unbelievable. Though it is true that one one hand, China is more prosperous and making strides in terms of human rights, there are still gross violations taking place in a quiet, insidious and equally damaging manner. This false sense of freedom makes it difficult for citizens to speak out. As interviewer and human rights activist Minky Worden said, if you don’t know what’s missing than how would you know to look for it?

Chan Koonchung in conversation with Minky Worden at IFOA 2012 ©

Koonchung spoke about the collective amnesia of the Chinese officials, and how certain incidents (such as Tiananmen Square) are not only not taught to students, but not spoken of at all. He gave an example of an acquaintance who was instructed by his children not to talk to his grandson about the past, lest he bring it up in school and get in trouble.

Koonchung and Worden spoke in depth about the nature of censorship in China. The internet is monitored and limited by the “Great Firewall,” policed by hundreds of thousands of censors who are paid to browse the Internet looking for content that has crossed an ever-changing and seemingly arbitrary line. These censors are paid by the deletion. But the Chinese people are learning to work around the Great Firewall. For example, a kind of coded lexicon has been created by the Chinese people to talk around events, ideas or people that are regularly censored.

Publishing houses are also state-owned and play by the censors’ rules, lest they be shut down and the livelihoods of hundreds of people are put at risk.

The Fat Years was published in Hong Kong in 2009 and immediately reviewed by many papers and critics in China before the censors could ban it (which they did, eventually). Koonchung referred to this as “rushing through the yellow light,” the red light being the censors. In China the only way to read the book is to get your hands on one of the many electronic copies people have made available, for free, online. Because some of these versions are riddled with typos and errors Koonchung prepared his own electronic version and gave it to a political activist who made sure to release it on the net. Imagine a North American author providing a free e-book, solely so people could read his work and be informed.

Koonchung spoke eloquently and wistfully about the 1983 constitution, a “beautiful” document ignored by the government. Koonchung claims that if only the party adhered to the principles and laws of this constitution, “an electric appliance without electricity,” the quality of life and government in China would vastly improve.

It was an honour to listen to such a gracefully-spoken and brave man, who feels compelled to ask questions and remember incidents his countrymen are forbidden to remember. His work gives new meaning and urgency to the concept of national literature. For if there are no writers like Koonchung to remember the past for us, how will we avoid these pitfalls and tragedies in the future?

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter?

By Vikki VanSickle

“When in Rome, decide to be Roman and convince the reader that they are Roman, too.”

-A.L. Kennedy

Sunday’s round table on national literature, part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at IFOA, began as many academic English courses in Canada begin—with a reference to Margaret Atwood. Moderator James Grainger quoted from Atwood’s seminal Canlit bible Survival, providing a Canadian context for the theme of national literature. Grainger suggested that since the 1990s, Canadian writers have been moving away from a national literature and embracing a more regional literature.

All five writers hail from countries with something of a colonist complex: Canada, Scotland and Australia. They agreed that there is an overriding feeling that an English or American novel is by default the norm and anything else is “other.” Both Irvine Welsh and A.L. Kennedy touched on the fact that Scotland hovers somewhere between a region of the UK and nation. To define a novel as a Scottish (rather than British) novel is a political statement. Kennedy said that while it is paramount that countries maintain a culture life there is always the possibility that politicians will hijack the arts for cultural purposes.

Irvine Welsh, Kristel Thornell, Beatrice MacNeil, A.L. Kennedy and Liam Card at IFOA 2012 ©

Is a national literature based on the writer’s nationality or the setting of the book? When and where does quality come into the conversation? An audience member observed that as an Italian-born Canadian, he appreciates literature that is both Italian and Canadian and does not draw distinctions between them.

With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter? There are of course practical benefits to defining oneself as a Canadian or Australian writer. Kristel Thornell mentioned how her Australian citizenship allows her to apply for grants and be eligible for national awards. Her nationality makes her visible in a community and the cultural infrastructure of a nation provides support for its writers. This is definitely true in Canada, as well.

Welsh talked about globalism and how it has created bland consumable culture, and anything interesting is pulled into the mainstream and is sanitized, synthesized and mass produced before it has a chance to percolate. There was fear among the group that globalism and the desire for an international bestseller has publishers seeking the major common denominator in fiction, that original voices are being ignored, and we are experiencing a steady decline in imagination.

Despite this malaise, all the panelists swore that being true to one’s story and one’s voice was their number one concern, and claimed not to bow down to these perceived external pressures. As Kennedy says, a novel is a conversation between a writer and a reader. It is intimate and universal, regardless of the reader or the writer’s nationality.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.

From Science to Fiction

By Corina Milic

Sunday evening’s round table, From Science to Fiction, had little to nothing to do with the way authors blur science and fantasy.

It barely resembled the program description, as at least one annoyed audience member pointed out.  That same member asked one of the few questions related to the discussion title, namely, how science relates to each author’s fiction. So let’s get that over with, shall we?

Robert J. Sawyer is out with his new novel, Triggers, in which characters have access to a sort of groupthink. Sawyer said he writes “hard science fiction” where research (in this case on memory science) is integral to the plot.

Ned Beauman’s novel is The Teleportation Accident.  Of the night’s topic he said, “As soon as I knew I’d be writing about teleportation in the 1930s, I knew I’d have to forget any kind of science. In historical fiction you have to make sure that nothing is accidentally wrong, but it’s perfectly acceptable to get something wrong on purpose.”

Hiromi Goto’s novel, Darkest Light, revolves around a boy’s discovery of his monstrous past. Goto said she is inspired by science’s often-poetic language and the non-scientific meanings she can render from its vocabulary.

Got that out of your system? Good, because the real awkward moments, literary jabs and interesting points came when moderator Lorna Toolis, of the Toronto Public Library’s Merril Collection of Science Fiction, asked, “Do you read your own reviews?”

Sawyer and Goto butted heads on the value of reading reviews, particularly those online. Beauman bowed out early, saying “I have my Amazon pages blocked on my computer, and I have blocked entirely.”

Goto said she reads reviews because she is “curious to know how a text is read” and that on the Internet, “you have a large number of people decoding your book in a certain way over there when your intentions were over here.”

Sawyer, on the other hand, said he prefers “professional reviews.” “The ideal review, from the author’s point of view, is when the reader gets it, gets what you were trying to do.”

If books are conversations, Goto said, she is more interested in learning how readers interpret her words.  Her goal is to open the text up to a wider audience, not, she suggested, narrow the discussion to those who already get it, like Sawyer.

Sawyer argued he goes to great lengths to break the “glass ceiling of genre fiction.” “I’ve written more books than the two of you combined,” he said, pointing out that he began shedding the traditional sci-fi tropes (such as spaceships) with his very first novels.

He added that he attracted new fans to the genre when his 1999 novel Flashforward was turned into a series of the same name for ABC in 2009. “A thinking person’s thriller on primetime television,” as he calls it.

Sawyer admitted was good for one thing. The site doesn’t label books like stores; isolating genre authors from potential readers who might never think to enter the science fiction section.

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog.

Rebecca Lee, Ben Lerner, Jess Walter: considering language and lost in translation

By Janet Somerville

Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney was a gracious and thoughtful host of the reading/interview featuring Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). My table companion in the Brigantine Room, David Kent (President of HarperCollins Canada), may have revealed himself to be an equal Lit Nerd to me, as ebullient and supportive as he was about all of the participants and their intelligent comments throughout the afternoon.

The event began with each reading from their work. Lee picked a story about plagiarism, set circa 1985, pre-Internet, when students “had to be bullied into admitting it” in which the accuser asked, “who helped you? A book or a person?” Lerner read an excerpt grounded in misunderstanding because of his poet protagonist’s assumed inability to communicate in Spanish as he tried to establish a life for himself in Madrid, where he “looked at the water and was sober,” comprehending only “in chords.” Walter introduced his Hollywood producer, Michael Deane, “a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed,” one who was seventy-two “with the face of a nine-year-old Filipina girl.” George Hamilton, anyone?

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c)

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c)

Prompted to consider lost in translation as a motif in each of their pieces, Lee suggested it was like falling in love, while Lerner said he found it interesting that “ambiguity is celebrated in poetry–it’s not a problem.” And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, his protagonist “believes people only find him interesting when he speaks in enigmatic fragments. He’s trying to keep fluency at bay.” For Walter, “miscommunication creates interesting distances.” When two of his characters “find each other and fall in love, but don’t speak each other’s language” it seems a “perfect metaphor for stumbling along in any of our lives.”

On writing itself as a process Lee said, “the essential struggle for me is moving ahead in the story and writing it beautifully. I have to write the first sentence and care about it.” For Lerner, “language is what I am most sensitive to, in love with, and annoyed by.” Walter admitted, “the lines drive me in the writing. I have to like the sound of them.” All of that is true for me as a reader, too. What matters is the phrasing, the rhythm, the pacing of each mindfully selected word. How many bars of Ella Fitzgerald do you need to listen to in order to know she’s great? It’s the same with finely crafted writing. You know in a moment or two.

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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